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Quotes on the internet: Frederick Douglass and Repairing Broken Men

Posted on 23 April 2014 at 9:24 pm in Musings.

This afternoon a student approach me at the Research Help desk. She wanted to cite the following quote by Frederick Douglass:

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

Noble sentiment, yes? And the internet is quite certain that he said it. Sites like Brainy Quote, Goodreads and others trumpet this quote. Blog posts refer to it. Nicholas Kristof, writing for the New York Times, attributes this quote to Douglass. It’s on bumper stickers. Even Christian evangelicals have quoted it, to further their own purposes.

But none of them mentioned where Frederick Douglass actually said this. One blog post referenced 1855, but included nothing else.

All of Douglass’s books are in the public domain, so I ventured to Project Gutenberg. Each of his published works can be opened as an HTML document and searched.

It turns out Frederick Douglass frequently uses the word “broken” — it appears 35 times in My Bondage and My Freedom alone. One line in particular, about the violence done to him as an enslaved child, was reminiscent of the famous quote:

Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?

Here is the entire passage in which that quote — a verifiably real quote — appears. It’s lengthy, but it’s worth understanding the quote in context:

The mistress of the house was a model of affection and tenderness. Her fervent piety and watchful uprightness made it impossible to see her without thinking and feeling—”that woman is a Christian.” There was no sorrow nor suffering for which she had not a tear, and there was no innocent joy for which she did not a smile. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these excellent qualities, and her home of its early happiness. Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage? It may be broken toward the slave, on Sunday, and toward the master on Monday. It cannot endure such shocks. It must stand entire, or it does not stand at all. If my condition waxed bad, that of the family waxed not better. The first step, in the wrong direction, was the violence done to nature and to conscience, in arresting the benevolence that would have enlightened my young mind. In ceasing to instruct me, she must begin to justify herself to herself; and, once consenting to take sides in such a debate, she was riveted to her position. One needs very little knowledge of moral philosophy, to see where my mistress now landed. She finally became even more violent in her opposition to my learning to read, than was her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as her husband had commanded her, but seemed resolved to better his instruction. Nothing appeared to make my poor mistress—after her turning toward the downward path—more angry, than seeing me, seated in some nook or corner, quietly reading a book or a newspaper. I have had her rush at me, with the utmost fury, and snatch from my hand such newspaper or book, with something of the wrath and consternation which a traitor might be supposed to feel on being discovered in a plot by some dangerous spy.

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, paragraph 120 | Project Gutenberg

This book was published in 1855, the same year mentioned by the blogger.

Nowhere in his published works does the popular internet quote appear. It is certainly possible it was uttered in a speech, the contents of which were published elsewhere — in a news story of the day, or by a biographer whose work I didn’t find. There’s a series of books from Yale University Press that include his private correspondence and the text of some of his speeches, content not published elsewhere. Perhaps the quote is in there — although I doubt a quote buried in an expensive series of academic texts has become an internet meme.

I think it’s more likely that what Frederick Douglass really said has been whitewashed.

Historical Whitewashing

It’s possible the passage in My Bondage and My Freedom has been paraphrased so often over the years that this popular quote about raising children right has replaced the truth about the violent treatment Douglass received as a child, and how the evils of slavery could break not only the spirits of people who were enslaved but also the souls of the white men and women who felt justified in enslaving others.

Racism and white privilege work in insidious ways. The dark, ugly truth of our white supremacist history can be transformed into positive affirmations, affirmations that then appear unquestioned online, on car bumpers, and in the New York Times.

I can’t prove that the popular quote isn’t real, and I can’t prove that it was the passage in My Bondage and My Freedom that inspired it. But that’s what I suspect.

And what did I tell the student? She wasn’t writing a historical analysis of Frederick Douglass, she was writing a psychology paper. The quote — whether real or false — set up her thesis nicely. I didn’t want to disrupt her process on the day her paper was due. So I advised that she refer to the quote as “widely attributed to” Frederick Douglass, and at least cite the Kristof article rather than Brainy Quote.

But then we also had a good conversation about historical truth (while I helped her clean up her references page — we were multitasking!). This type of work with students — digging into how information is presented, how to present information, understanding context, and closing in on the truth (however that may be defined) — this is what I like about being a librarian.

Many thanks to my fellow librarians who helped me in my quest to verify the quote — @cclibchica, @CarliSpina, @mchris4duke, and @sehovde.

A slightly shorter version of this post was originally published on tumblr.

Losing Control of the Wheel

Posted on 28 July 2009 at 5:40 pm in Musings.

I recently read about the dismantling of the Engineering Library at the Chrysler Technical Center. Stories like that are always sad; what is lost can never be recovered or rebuilt. With the advancements in digital archiving and paperless storage, archives need never be destroyed; even if a company like Chrysler, or its ownership group, blanches at the cost of maintaining a library, historic documents can almost always find a home at a museum or research institution. Was the University of Michigan even contacted before the library was shuttered and its archives given out in piecemeal?

Technology has changed the game for archivists. The destruction of Ashurbanipal’s Library at Nineveh was inevitable with the changing tides of Empire. Locals were still pilfering the stones of Ashurbanipal’s palace thousands of years later when assyriologist and adventurer George Smith arrived to extract the clay cuneiform tablets that make up the majority of our knowledge of the ancient Assyrians. The fiery demise of the Great Library of Alexandria was also inevitable in an age when urban fires were a daily reality in the overcrowded cities of Antiquity. But we live in a different era: the only threat to the record of our past is our own negligence. The cost of preserving that library — or finding a research institution to donate it to, without dismantling the collection — is a pittance compared to the factory costs and other overhead at a corporation like Chrysler.

The history of the automobile is one of the vital stories of American history. While I’ve never been a car aficionado (I’m more seduced by the click and hum of a freewheel and gears — the quiet grace of the bicycle — than by the cough and sputter of the internal combustion engine), you can’t look at the 20th century without an appreciation of the automobile’s influence. It has irrevocably changed and suburbanized American culture and had a powerful jump-start effect on the mid-century American economy (both in the twenties and fifties). To lose documentation of those eras is to lose control of the wheel.

You can never look forward if you can’t look behind. Hopefully Chrysler’s remaining archives, and the comparable archives at General Motors, will be preserved.

Thanks to KB for the tip.

There he sat with an answer for all

Posted on 8 April 2009 at 10:25 pm in Coursework.

They coaxed and questioned, they queried and quizzed,
Till the windows winked and the pillars whizzed:
O, heavens, the things they wanted to know
From Moses’ tomb down to dynamo!
“I should like to make some Ozokerite;”
“A cure, if you please, for potato-blight;”
“What is the catch of Saskatchewan River?”
“What have you got on the spleen and liver?”
“The pedigree of the monkey-wrench -
Had I better look in Darwin or Trench?”
“Is there any new trick for coloring butter?
By the way, do you swear by Dewey or Cutter?”

-Excerpt from “A Librarian’s Dream”, by John Vance Cheney, 1891

Publicly presented that year at the American Library Association Conference

Reference is one of the most hallowed and ancient duties of a librarian. Regardless of technology and changing times, librarians have always had two fundamental duties, from Ninevah to Alexandria to the Boston Atheneum: organizing the collection (cataloging) and helping the patrons (reference). In the face of Google and the web at large there are many cries, to paraphrase Nietzsche, that “Reference is Dead!”

Reference is not dead. The shape of it, however, is changing.

It is true that in a minute or so of googling I could find out how to make ozokerite, and would not need to disturb the librarian. Reference inquiries at public libraries are undeniably down. However, the number of online databases continues to multiply, and the differences between the various subscription and free services are becoming trickier and trickier to master. Standards are far from uniform, and students arrive at projects with little or no schooling in research tools. There is still room for the professional. With much of the need coming from our academic institutions — both the students and the research faculty — the academic library needs to take a look at how researchers work and how to best provide them with the reference service they still need.

When researching a new subject, my first step — and this is becoming close to universal — is to sit down at my computer. I see what I can find on google first, and from there I might log onto San José’s King Library databases to find peer-reviewed articles and resources. Only after I have exhausted online resources will I start to look at print information and archival collections. Since the bulk of my time is spent looking at a monitor — a monitor in my house — it makes sense that my library be there waiting for me. I live 70 miles away from the King Library, but I still need reference services. I just need it where and when it is convenient. Fortunately, computer technology — the very bane said to be the Death of Reference — is the tool I can use to connect to professional librarians, 24 hours a day. Email is a difficult tool to use for reference since so many inquiries require back-and-forth responses. The key is synchronous communication. Chat, Instant Messaging, and SMS Texting are all forms of typed, synchronous communication. VOIP (voice over internet protocol) is a form of verbal communication that can blend audio, text and video. Both types of services can take place when the patron is front of their own computer (or the library’s, for that matter), or over a mobile telephony device. Since the researcher will spend more time at their computer than in the Reference Department, that’s where reference services need to be located to be useful.

The Latest Tools and Tricks

There are a number of different “2.0″ tools that libraries are using to provide synchronous online reference. Most are variations on the same concept. The IM world is beset by competing Instant Messaging services, each with their own log-in data, such as AOL’s AIM, Google Talk, MSN and Yahoo!, but this can be sidestepped by services like Meebo or Plugoo, both of which provide account holders with blog or webpage-ready widgets that merge different services and allow anonymous users to contact account holders. In this case, the account holder would be the library’s reference department. IM, and its kissing cousins text and chat, are great ways to provide reference since the written word can provide greater clarity than conversation and relevant html links can be copied, pasted and sent straight to the user.

I’ve been able to both use and provide chat reference and found it to be a great way to communicate — with a couple caveats: 1) It’s better to use a chat service provided by a library you are a member of, since then the librarian can accurately judge what resources are available to you; and 2) the user and librarian should both be prompt in replying to each other. A long lag-time between responses — I’ve had patrons go five minutes or more without responding to a question from me — disrupts the process and makes it hard to narrow down the question’s parameters. Obviously a phone or in-person reference interview is not in danger of going idle at seemingly random intervals.

I would also invite readers of this blog to head over to The Pinakes reference desk, near the top right of the screen. You’ll find a Meebo widget with which you can fire any questions you might have my way. You don’t need an account to use this tool. If it indicates I am online, I will try and answer you straightaway; if I’m not, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

An alternative to text-only services is VOIP in the form of a service like Skype. In its most basic use, Skype is a great way to get free long distance phone calls; with a microphone and speakers (or a headset) the user can speak to any other Skype user for free and make calls to land lines and cell phones. Skype can also be used to send SMS text messages or live chat. A computer with a video camera — increasingly a standard feature on monitors and laptops — can be used as a video phone. The user can simultaneously use the chat features as well, so a Skype reference call could feature live voice interaction with copied links to information resources. Far more versatile than a standard phone call! My experiments with Skype this week reveal that it has a few bugs to work out — different users had different interfaces, the program crashed on some users — but it’s safe to guess it’s only a matter of time before the platform is stable and consistent. The catch with a service like Skype, or even the more bare-bones video conferencing provided by Google or Meebo — is that only a small percentage of users are comfortable with using them (and have the technology).

This is even more true of the Java-based Elluminate, a great video conferencing tool used by many educational institutions but not something most library users have experience using. It allows the moderator to speak back and forth with users, show the user web sites, interact on a virtual white board and more. Earlier tonight I got a great tutorial on Elluminate from the host of Bibliotechno (who is a regular SLIS Elluminate moderator), but are library users really going to flock to a program that requires a tutorial in the first place? Elluminate would probably be best used by libraries on university campuses that are focused on e-learning, with students already accustomed to its use.

None of these services have yet passed the tipping point of popularity and saturation, but I suspect each will become more and more popular — and replaced by dramatically more user-friendly and intuitive variants — as the aughts fade to the teens.

We should not mourn the fact that the number of reference interactions is diminishing. What we are losing in quantity we can make up for in quality — we have more time to work in-depth with the patrons that need it. The reference inquiries that are disappearing in the face of internet search are the ones that weren’t that hard to answer in the first place. Instead, we can grant more time and more assistance to those researchers, students and patrons who are looking into serious questions or truly need help learning and mastering the tools of academic research. This is a blessing.

In his chair, unflinching took shock after shock;
Without so much as a glance at his clock,
He answered ‘em, yea, by Peter and Paul,
Serenely he answered ‘em, one and all.
His dinner at six, ’twas now quite eleven,
But there he sat, as the saints sit in Heaven;
The friend, the peer, of the shades on the wall,
There he sat with an answer for all

-Further excerpt from “A Librarian’s Dream”, by John Vance Cheney, 1891

The full text of the poem quoted in this blog post can be found in the Papers and Proceedings of the General Meeting of the American Library Association, 1892, pgs. 137-138.

Wiping the Screen Clean

Posted on 18 March 2009 at 3:32 pm in Coursework, Podcasts.

In Ancient Rome, it was fashionable for the sons of the wealthy to be educated by literate Greek slaves, some individually, others in small, privately run schools with at most a dozen students. The typical writing materials of the era were parchment (made from animal skins; vellum, from calves, was considered the highest quality) or papyrus, made from beaten reeds. However, both parchment and papyrus were too expensive for children’s education, so tutors used a clever alternative: a wax tablet and stylus.

The tutor or his students could use the stylus to draw markings in the semi-soft wax; afterwards, the text could be smoothed out and the tablet used again. With this tool, the tutor would teach the most important subjects to his students: Greek, Latin, and arithmetic. This idea never went away — from slate chalkboards to contemporary whiteboards, reusable writing surfaces have had a long lifetime.

Education today, of course, takes many forms, and extends far beyond the classroom. With distance learning enjoying ever-increasing acceptance, new tools had to be created to allow for classroom-quality teaching to be available in an asynchronous electronic environment. The computer, once owned and online, is a tool where lessons can be written and re-written, viewed and re-viewed, and updated all with minimal cost. One tool intended to fulfill that role is screencasting. A screencast is a video screen capture combined with narration and disseminated using RSS feed enclosures, much like a podcast or vlog.

One entertaining and well-known example of a screencast is the ‘heavy metal umlaut‘ screencast by Jon Udell that serves as a primer on wikipedia.

So how is the screencast being used by our bibliosphere? Meredith Farkas points out a number of examples:

  • The UCLA Library’s “Road to Research” online research guide contains a number of screencasts, such as this side-by-side comparison of Google Scholar and the PsychINFO database.
  • Princeton’s “UChannel” streams a mix of screencasts, filmed lectures and other materials, also available over RSS feeds and iTunes.
  • The University of Maine has many of their online tutorials available as screencasts.

Other institutions use related technology for the same purpose. San Francisco State’s J. Paul Leonard Library prefers narrated slideshow style presentations, such as this one entitled Intro to College Level Research. I like this product since it avoids some of the herky-jerky, follow-the-mouse effects of Camtasia screencasts; it also has easy-to-use options for captions for users without speakers or headphones (this can be very important for library users!).

This is one of the chief perils of relying on screencast technology for user education; users at library computer terminals may not be able to listen to narrated presentations, or even if the library allows sound, they may hesitate to. We cannot assume that all users are accessing these types of resources from home computers; in fact, many users are at the library because they do not have home internet access. Therefore, we should provide multiple options, including captioned presentations and non-video (text and/or image-based) alternatives.

Re-syndicating Sylvanus

Posted on 11 February 2009 at 11:39 pm in Coursework.

In 1731 an Englishman by the name of Edward Cave devised a new business model. It was, at the time, a wholly original idea, most likely born out of his experience working in the London Post Office. He took selected articles printed in books and newspapers — which by then were an old idea, having been around for six score years — and repackaged them into a bound set of pages and advertised them for home delivery via the post. Since Cave saw his enterprise as a “storehouse” of articles and poetry relevant to the educated man of his day, he used a synonym for storehouse in naming his publication — The Gentleman’s Magazine.

His endeavor was successful. In time, Cave — publishing under the more literary pen name “Sylvanus Urban” — collected a stable of writers who would submit original work as well. An industry — and a new meaning for a word, now more widely used than the original — was born. The Gentleman’s Magazine is widely referenced as the first periodical magazine (Bond, pgs. 85-86).

It was also, in many ways, the first RSS Feed Reader. After all, Cave was taking articles, essays and poems you might find elsewhere and collecting them in one place — and delivering them to your door. Sure, 268 years may have passed between the first issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine and the invention of RSS Feeds by Netscape in 1999 (Farkas, pg. 50), but the idea remains unchanged, only modified by the technology available in this day and age. The Reader is a magazine, custom tailored by each individual “subscriber”.

And a powerful technology it is. It is one of the primary engines of the internet, feeding content into countless aggregators and custom pages (such as My Yahoo! or Google News). Web-surfers browse across RSS Feeds daily without even knowing it.

My first witting foray in RSS Feeds was the use of Google Reader. It was one of many tabs on the top of my gmail page that I never used, until I saw a friend reference it in her blog. Using Google Reader was easy and immediately appealing, as I had about thirty blogs already bookmarked. I simply cut and pasted the relevant URLs into the Google Reader, and voilà, the blogs came to me whenever they were updated.

However, the “power” comes in the form of slicing and dicing the information as desired. If I subscribe to a newspaper, I receive (and pay for) the whole thing. What if I only read the sports section, the comics, and the letters to the editor?  Can I pay less, and only get those pages? No. But with an RSS Reader, I can do the equivalent.  I can subscribe to a search string on a specific aggregator; I can subscribe to a folksonomic tag on flickr.

Meredith Farkas lays out a number of methods libraries can harness this tool to better serve patrons. A few of her examples:

RSS feeds are an old idea reinvented; a new technology mimicking a centuries old concept. What worked to make Edward Cave a fortune now makes the internet hum. Learning to use these tools — both as an individual pursuing information, and as an information professional looking to share it — is vital. The Gentleman’s Magazine may have ceased publishing in 1907, but it had a good long run — and so will Really Simple Syndication.


Bond, D.F. (1940). Review: The Gentleman’s Magazine. Modern Philology 38 (1), pg. 85-100.

Farkas, M.G. (2007). Social software in libraries. Medford: Information Today, Inc.

Printing Press 2.0

Posted on 3 February 2009 at 9:44 pm in Coursework.

There are few analogies more overplayed than the “internet-is-the-new-printing-press” metaphor. But there is a reason for its popularity.

A slim recap of the history: the advent of the printing press is widely credited as one of the most profound shifts in all history, not just the history of information.  Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, developed a movable type press that within a generation or two had largely replaced the centuries old tradition of hand-scribed codices.

The earliest books, or incunabula, were designed to look like handwritten books: typefaces resembled the calligraphic curves of monks and scriveners, and featured large, hand-colored “rubricated” letters to signal paragraph shifts. In time printers began to shift away from the traditions of hand-written books — traditions simply uneccessary in printed books — and started to develop simpler, easier to read typefaces and layouts. This made printing less expensive, more replicable, and soon presses existed in every major European city. In addition to German printers, the Venetian and Parisian press had substantial influences (the term italic is derived from an obvious source … Italy).

Books and other printed materials exploded in production and popularity, and literacy began to rise as a result. The course of history, faith (the press played a major role in the Reformation) and industry all changed, and centuries later the notions of the free press and pamphleteers would be essential to the birth of democracy. A direct line can be drawn.

It is quite obvious — more now than ever — that the internet is not merely a medium for words or even just information. It is a mechanism for communication, for commerce, distribution — there is at least some form of every intellectual human activity represented in online technology. Just as the domino effect of the printing press altered world history, so to has the internet.


We each have a Johannes Gutenberg waiting at the tips of our fingers. Anyone can create a blog or simple webpage using free, online tools with little to no knowledge or undertstanding of HTML or programming language. Because of cloud computing, a computerless person can sign-up for a blog at an internet terminal in the San Francisco Public Library, then post and publish from a beachside internet café while traveling in Koh Lanta. A password is all they would need to pack.

For the initiate blogger, there are a few competing services that offer one-click publishing. Here are three of the most popular:

  • Google’s blogger — free and easy-to-use, blogger offers a couple dozen templates (although html savvy users can design their own or tweak the basic models). Anyone with a google account (such as gmail) already has a blogger login.
  • San Francisco-based LiveJournal operates on a platform called “Movable Type” (a tip of the cap, of course, to Herr Gutenberg and his movable type printing press). LiveJournal stands out for its excellent friends or “flist”  feature that promotes community blogging. A user can cultivate a group of friends, and by clicking on their “friends” button, read an automated RSS feed of all of their friends’ blogs from within their own blog’s template.
  • WordPress differs from these two competitors in that, like the Firefox internet browser, it is developed with Open Source, not proprietary, software. The WordPress user has two options: using to host their blog and accept some limitations on the software and usage, or go to and download the software and host it via a third party. The differences are explained here.

The Pinakes is part of an educational project and therefore hosted by the San José State’s School of Library and Information Science. It was designed using technology.

Using the downloadable WordPress service confers some definite advantages over the offerings: hundreds more highly customizable templates, plugins and extensions that allow for a more powerful, robust website or blog. For instance, The Pinakes makes use of the Sun City theme, not available on

I chose Sun City because the distinctive header echoes the transitional arc of civilization I hope to invoke in the blog — discussing “papyrus to pdf”. I also appreciate the dark contrasting colors and bold design.  Hundreds of templates are free to browse at’s theme directory. Once a theme is downloaded from WordPress and uploaded to your server, you can switch one in and another out with a few simple clicks — though some themes support features that others don’t, so be wary if you’re trying this yourself.

Take a look at what The Pinakes might look like under different skins: Less is Less, Random Background, or WordPress Classic.


Publishing? Via blogger, LiveJournal or Wordpress it is relatively easy. Gutenberg’s ghost is satisfied. The true challenge in blogging is dissemination. Sure — anyone can look at your blog, but will they? Amidst the clutter and noise of five million blogs (Farkas, pg. 11) and assorted websites, who will read your offerings? The majority of search engine queries are one word long. Is there any one word that will lead a reader to your blog off of a search engine? Unlikely.

So the real trick isn’t getting “published”. It’s getting noticed. Every blog has its own target audience — not everyone is angling for thousands of readers — but even then your niché can be hard to find. If search engines aren’t the answer, promotion is. A push. Developing buzz. To experiment with the “buzz” tools of the day, I’ve installed the Sociable Plugin. This is a tool that creates a set of buttons at the bottom of each post’s page that allows a reader to import that post or page into facebook, delicious or other networking websites seamlessly (for instance, anything I post on facebook is immediately exposed to 209 other people.  What happens if 2-3 of them post it as well?). The so-called “viral marketing” that can result from an endless chain of individuals forwarding a link (at no cost to the original source) is the holy grail of online promotions.

To install Sociable, I downloaded the plugin from the WordPress site and, much like the templates, uploaded it through SJSU’s Senna server. Now my task is to write posts that inspire you to share them.

Reference: Farkas, M.G. (2007). Social software in libraries. Medford: Information Today, Inc.

A Reading Room

Posted on 30 January 2009 at 2:48 am in Coursework, Photography.

While this blog will largely be devoted to technology, it is always worthwhile to look at the past: there is both beauty and wisdom in the old ideas of our great institutions.

One of my favorite aspects of historic libraries is the grand, classical reading room with its soaring ceilings and walls clad in books. Few modern libraries have a public space so monumental, and so wholly devoted to quiet scholarship. The reader is impressed by his or her surroundings; it elevates their condition. I took this picture in the reading room of the New York Public Library:

Locally, I recommend the Doe Library’s Reference Reading Room, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, for similar grandeur. Would you nominate any other grand spaces?

Welcome to The Pinakes

Posted on 30 January 2009 at 12:07 am in Musings.

Welcome to The Pinakes, a discussion of library technology, new and old, and how the two might meet. Your host is a second-year Masters Candidate in Library and Information Science with a passion for history, rare books and modern technology.

This site is named for the first known library catalog. The pinakes was the work of Callimachus of Cyrene, a scholar, poet and librarian of the third century BCE.  Callimachus oversaw the famed Great Library of Alexandria at a time it housed all the known knowledge of the world. He is considered by many to be the father of bibliography.

The original pinakes was an index of all the world’s information, divided into eleven categories. I will use this blog as a tool for discovering, describing and indexing the latest tools for information-sharing — how many categories of technology will we discover? From papyrus to codex to pdf — it’s all information.

Your comments, thoughts and feedback are very welcome here.